Germainicus Bridges, a high school senior in Milwaukee, didn’t used to be interested in school events like dances. Now he wishes he would have gone to more of them when he had the chance. He sets two alarms to wake up for virtual school every day because, after a year of learning from home behind a screen, he’s struggling to stay motivated.
But he brightens up when his mentor signs into his virtual classes.
Running Rebels Community Organization has been providing professional mentors — many of whom attended MPS schools themselves — to students at seven MPS schools for the past decade as part of the Violence Free Zone mentorship program.
“We make sure that young people have access to mentors who look like them and have shared experiences in our community,” said John Rakowski, director of prevention programs at Running Rebels. “Young people know the mentors are connected to Running Rebels, and they’re seen differently than teachers or administrators. That’s helpful at times in terms of having a space where young people can share issues and feel like there’s less bias.”
During a normal school year, the mentors are assigned to specific students who have been referred by teachers, administrators or parents. They talk with those students, tutor them, provide resources and serve as a safe space for them. And because they’re in the school buildings all day, they act as “an extra set of eyes and ears” to identify other kids who need help and to mediate conflicts that arise.
But, as Bridges alluded to, mentorship looks different during virtual school.
He appreciates that the mentors pop into classes to make things more interesting, but they’re also making sure their mentees are participating and engaged.
Joining in their virtual classes
Rakowski said mentors arrive at the Running Rebels centers each morning and log into their students’ classes. If their mentees aren’t in class, they call them or their parents to see if they need help with technological issues, if they’re delayed by family obligations or if they just need some motivation to join classes.
“Then while they’re in the classes, they support the teachers’ conversations and lessons. They’re another trusted adult in the virtual classroom,” said Rakowski. “If a young person has a challenge or maybe gets upset by something discussed, the mentor is able to follow up with that person one-on-one. Then maybe they can help them jump back into class, or maybe just get mentally ready for the next class.”
Many schools throughout the country have had trouble getting kids to attend their virtual classes this year. Running Rebels mentors are helping out with that. Rakowski said school administrators have referred students to the organization specifically so they can make contact with students who haven’t been logging in to see how they can help.
“We’re helping improve the attendance rate at our schools,” said Kashunda Brown, a mentor at Vincent High School. “We’re giving the kids wakeup calls if we don’t see the students in class, then we’re letting the teachers know that they’ll be right there. We have relationships with the students.”
Cultivating relationships with students, parents and teachers
The relationships are not only with the students; they extend to school staff and the students’ family members as well.
“Sometimes we can’t connect with the students at class time, but we know the family too so we follow through with the parents, and they can hold the kids accountable,” said DeeDee Pate, a mentor at Washington High School. “Our team is working with everyone — the students, teachers, counselors, parents. We’re the liaison between everyone.”
Keondrae Speights, a mentor at Hamilton High School, points out that the pandemic has had a silver lining for the mentors and their mentees. He said in a normal school year, the mentors meet their mentees at school, then the kids go home and tell their parents about them. This year, the mentors’ relationships are more robust as they’ve met the students and their parents — virtually — at the same time.
Mickell Harrell, a mentor at North Division High School, agrees and added that the teachers are getting the chance to see the mentors in action as well since, before the pandemic, the mentors didn’t typically attend classes.
“They realize our relationships are strong,” said Pate. “We have those one-on-one relationships with the kids more than ever this year.”
Providing resources for mental health
This school year, mentors are also providing resources for kids who have been dealing with mental health issues and increased stress as a result of the prolonged pandemic. Those have been caused by a lack of social opportunities, increased poverty due to lost jobs and greater responsibility to babysit younger siblings and help them with schoolwork.
“A lot of our kids have to babysit other siblings and help out with household chores when they’re at home,” said Speights. “For those kids, school is their peace, where they can go and just be a student. But when they’re not able to go to school and be a student, they don’t get that refuge from regular life.”
When they see those kids struggling, the mentors follow up with administrators and teachers to tell them additional support is needed. They schedule one-on-one meetings with the kids to give them time to talk. They drop off groceries at their houses. And they utilize the in-person activities the Running Rebels centers are able to hold with safety precautions.
There’s a virtual learning center where kids can come during the school day if they need tutoring during their classes. They can also spend one-on-one time with their mentors, and take part in programs such as creative writing and sports.
“A lot of our kids aren’t doing well mentally. When I reach out, they tell me they miss me and miss being in class,” said Harrell. “I tell them I miss them too. I used to joke with them that they give me a headache sometimes. I want to take that back now.”
As the mentors help their students in the virtual realm, they’re also thinking ahead to when they go back to school in-person, possibly as early as April, and definitely in fall.
Speights said the mentors are preparing to explain the new protocols to the kids — the social distancing, the masking, the fewer extracurricular activities — that will make in-person school safe. He also anticipates reminding kids of the regular school rules they’ll have to relearn, and helping them deal with their anxiety about being back in public during a pandemic.
“I’m hoping their behavior and engagement will be better than it was before the pandemic,” said Pate. “They desperately want and need the social interaction they’ve been missing. I think they’ll be more appreciative of school than before and excited to be back.”
About Running Rebels
The Running Rebels Community Organization engages the community, youth, and their families; prevents involvement in gangs, drugs, violence, and the juvenile justice system; intervenes and guides youth by assisting them with making positive choices; and coaches youth through their transition into adulthood. We accomplish this through building relationships with youth and providing the resources and skills necessary for them to become thriving, connected, and contributing adult members of our community. For more information visit https://runningrebels.org.